The Art Behind the Ink

Human Canvases Take the Image of Tattoo Art from Stained to Celebrated
Scott Holstein
Tattoo artist Alain Rodgers inks in the feathers of a phoenix design on the arm of a customer at Euphoria.

Gone are the days of bikers and sailors going to dark alleys in sketchy neighborhoods to stain their skin with crude tattoos. Now more average folks, young and old, are going under the needle and coming out with something a lot more permanent than a little botox.

Almost 25 percent of American adults have at least one tattoo, according to a Pew Research study.

The art of tattooing has been around for centuries, but for years American culture saw it as a practice of “undesirables” who adorned sunburned arms peeking out from black leather jackets with cut-off sleeves.
Now body art is cropping up all over the country — on everyone from the long-haired beach bunnies baring their lower back “tags” to corporate employees hiding them under collared shirts and suit jackets.

The popularity of TLC’s “LA Ink” turned celebrity tattoo artist Kat Von D into a household name and gave viewers a sneak peek into what goes on in a tattoo shop. This and other reality shows have catapulted tattoo art into the mainstream.

These human canvases are sporting much more than the iconic Sailor Jerry-style anchors or red hearts with “Mom” scrawled across a banner. There are limitless options when it comes to design and color, and the newly tattooed are taking advantage.

Sailor Jerry, an important figurehead in the tattoo industry, was the mastermind who inspired the edgy work of his protégé, Ed Hardy. Hardy’s signature designs, fusing elements of American and Japanese culture, are practically ubiquitous, appearing on lines of clothing, accessories and fragrances in department stores nationwide.

This self-expression is becoming a lucrative business as more tattoo shops open up in suburban areas nationwide. In fact, Florida is home to what MSNBC calls “the most tattooed city in America.” Beating out Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Miami Beach has about 24 tattoo parlors per 100,000 people.

Tats Without Regret

Tattoo artists often get a bad rap and are blamed for permanently marking those who are inking without thinking. But don’t believe the hype. Responsible tattoo artists are alive and well in Tallahasssee.

Alain Rodgers, owner of the Euphoria tattoo parlor on Gaines Street, opens his doors at noon Monday through Saturday and is closed most nights by 7 p.m., much earlier than one might expect.

His goal is to stop people who aren’t serious about their tattoos from getting work done that they might later regret, like the ever-popular soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend’s name on the neck, or the half-naked hula girls dancing on the forearm.

“We try to steer people away from getting tattoos on their hands and necks, because it could either make or break you in getting a job,” he said. “We try not to be ‘that’ tattoo shop.”

Closing a little earlier than other shops doesn’t seem to hurt business at all. According to Rodgers, he and the other Euphoria artists complete more than 3,000 tattoos a year.

Rick Meshell, owner of the Solid Ink tattoo shop on Monroe Street, also believes in responsible tattooing. Meshell says his shop tattoos everyone from college students to doctors and lawyers to minors coming in with their parents.

After three years in business, the artists at Solid Ink do what they can to uphold their reputations — even if that means turning some clients away.

“We don’t do anything racially offensive,” Meshell says. “One guy came in just last weekend asking if we’d do a swastika for him. I turned him down. We’re not racist here, and we aren’t risking our reputation just because a customer is.”

Meshell says he also refuses to do tattoos on the necks and hands of minors who come in with their parents.
“I’ve had parents argue with me over that,” he says. “But those kids don’t know where they’ll be in a few years. I couldn’t do it with a clear conscience.”

There is nothing worse than having your tattoo artist make a mistake in their design. To prevent this from happening, both Rodgers and Meshell emphasize the importance of an apprenticeship. This is the process by which aspiring artists learn the ins and outs of the tattooing art. It usually takes about a year but, according to Meshell, it can sometimes take longer. Aspiring artists take this time to perfect their drawing skill, learn how to properly use and sterilize equipment and how to take a client’s idea and turn it into a design.

When an artist feels ready to pick up a needle and try their hand at a real tattoo, they usually start with small ones on themselves and their friends before moving on to booking clients for the shop.

“By the time an apprentice starts tattooing people, they have learned and practiced a lot, so making a mistake isn’t likely,” Meshell says.

Ink at Work

Although tattoo art has made headway toward social acceptability, many of the tattooed are still opting to get theirs in places that can be easily hidden when it’s time to get dressed for work.

Seventy-two percent of adults with tattoos have them in places that can be hidden by normal clothing, according to Pew.

Do visible tattoos prevent an applicant from getting hired? This isn’t a rule set in stone in every work environment — but it’s no urban myth either. The truth is, it just depends on where you work.

Florida State University, one of the city’s largest employers, doesn’t have a policy regarding tattoos in the workplace.

Representatives in the university’s Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity say there is no requirement for employees to cover visible tattoos and no one will be denied a job because of them.

Not every place of employment is so laissez-faire. Steve Adriaanse, vice president and chief human resources officer for Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare says, “visible tattoos that display nudity, vice, crime, objectionable symbols or profanity are prohibited and must be covered.” The hospital has no policy regarding other types of tattoos, and no applicant will be turned away because of a tattoo.

While some employers have nothing against tattoo art, others welcome them with open arms.

Alex Beltrami, owner of the Midtown Filling Station, says his restaurant/bar could easily be the most tattooed place of employment in town. The visible tattoos and outlandish piercings that could possibly ruin your chances of getting hired at most places give an extra edge that could make you a shoe-in at the Filling Station.

“It’s not really the look of all our customers, but it’s different,” he says. “Everyone seems to like it.”

The décor is rough but refined, with leather and metal design alongside rock band posters, license plates and bumper stickers. Many of the bartenders have worked together since the Filling Station opened a year ago and have developed a sense of family.

“We’re like a hipster version of Cheers over here,” Beltrami says.

Beltrami has both arms fully covered with tattoos. In his days as a student in Tallahassee, he kept his body art under control. His tattoos never traveled past the length of a short-sleeved shirt, but when he started his first business, the Tantra Lounge, he completed his first tattoo “sleeve.”

The bartenders at the Filling Station sport tattoos that could rival Beltrami’s in number. Rodgers and other Euphoria artists did much of their work.

The Filling Station is getting recognition for its presence in the tattoo world. Beltrami’s restaurant hosted the Sailor Jerry/Inked Magazine tattooed pin-up girl model search in July.

Safe and Sterile

Regardless of how anyone may feel about tattoo art, Rodgers says the most important thing to consider in the tattooing process is safety.

At Euphoria, Rogers and his team use pre-sterilized and individually packaged disposable needles and plastic disposable tubes. Each client gets a new set of equipment to ensure safety.

“Find out what kind of equipment the artist you’re considering uses,” he suggests. “Stainless steel equipment works just as well, but after cleaning them a thousand times, what are the chances of getting them perfectly clean every time?”

This level of safety is a far cry from the way Buff Crook, a local hairstylist, got her first tattoo about 20 years ago.
“Back then, medical supervision was required to get a tattoo but nobody could afford that, and I wanted to get a tattoo anyway,” she says. Crook got her first tattoo in an apartment from a tattoo artist who came to town from Georgia for the weekend.

“I remember walking into the room at 2 p.m. and having to wake everyone up,” she says. “They were all asleep or hung over, but this was the only way I could get a tattoo, so I let them tattoo me.”

It was this lack of safety and sanitation that added to the stigma already surrounding tattoo art. “Dirty needles” promoted the spread of diseases like hepatitis and tuberculosis. These days, the tattooing process is much safer, but it’s still up to the clients to double-check the precautions of their artist.

This tattoo craze is not just a fad for 20-somethings still in the throes of teenage rebellion. Members of older generations who once turned their noses up at the tattooed youth are now joining the ranks. The Pew survey says 47 percent of people with tattoos are between the ages of 30 and 64.

Meshell gave his mother, who was once an avid protestor of tattoo art, her first tattoo a few years ago when she was 50.

Buff’s mother, Hilda Crook, who has spent most of her life in Tallahassee working for local law firms, got her first tattoo five years ago — at age 61.

“From the time I first secretly thought it might be kind of nice to have a little something for myself, it was about 10 years before I ever said anything out loud about it,” she says.

After years of worrying each time one of her children got a new tattoo, she let it slip that she wanted one of her own but was always afraid.

The next day her daughter, who now has four tattoos, made an appointment and she plopped down in Rodgers’ chair at Euphoria and went under the needle. “I wasn’t going to let her keep living in fear,” Buff says.

Hilda emerged with a little red heart on her shoulder and has since added a butterfly perched on top of it.

“I was scared that he might make it too big, too bold,” Hilda said. “This was just one little thing I wanted to have. I was afraid it would show too much. But he did exactly what I asked for.”

Although Hilda is now a member of the tattooed population, she still has her reservations when it comes to those who are heavily inked. An attitude, she says, that stems from the way tattoos were viewed when she was growing up.

“You’d talk about a person and hear something like ‘she’s so sweet and so nice, but she’s got a tattoo.’ It was taboo when I was growing up,” she says.

When Buff got her first tattoo, she made sure to get it on her side so it could be easily covered. “It was very hidden,” she says. “But I wanted to show it off, I was very proud of it.”

Her mother did not react well when the then-20-year-old Buff got her first tattoo, and when she got a second one on her ankle she kept it hidden for a few years before ever telling her mother.

Obviously, her views have changed a bit.

Tattoos Aren’t Forever

As tattooing grows more popular, so does the tattoo removal industry. Dr. James Caldwell’s practice, Dermatology Advanced Care, opened eight years ago but he has been working with laser technology for the past 25 years.
Whether it’s the neon clover on your wrist, the flaming dragon on your forearm or the name of the ex-boyfriend from college you were convinced you’d marry one day before you realized that he was a complete jerk, some tattoos just are not meant to stay.

In fact, according to Caldwell, about 50 percent of people who have tattoos experience some level of tattoo regret within the first two years.

The good news is, advancements in Q-switch laser technology can remove most tattoos — but it’ll cost you, in both time and money.

On average, small tattoos — imagine a half dollar size — will cost $150 per treatment, while larger tattoos can cost closer to $500 per treatment. That is definitely more than a little pocket change, since most tattoos take between six and 12 treatments, at least six weeks apart, to be completely removed.

Between 20 and 25 patients a year come to Caldwell for tattoo removal. Although this is a far cry from the thousands of tattoos per year that Euphoria and Solid Ink artists work on, each candidate for removal makes a six-to 12-month commitment that could easily cost well over $1,000.

Associates in Caldwell’s office say the laser procedure feels like a “repeated snap of a rubber band.” Each treatment can take between five minutes for small tattoos to an hour for larger ones.
“It does hurt if you don’t use the anesthetic,” Caldwell says. “But I’ve never had anybody not get treated because of the pain.”

Dermatology Advanced Care consults with each client to determine cost, number of procedures required and what results should be expected. Factors like skin tone, professional versus amateur tattoos, and colored ink versus black and dark blue ink all play a role in the difficulty of removal.

“Black and dark blue ink are the easiest to treat. Those are the best colors for removal. The more iridescent colors are tougher to get rid of. You can still accomplish the goal, but you’re going to be the person who takes 10 to 12 treatments, not five or six.”

Buff Crook, however, is not worried about ever regretting any of the art she has adorning her body.
A few years ago she underwent gastric bypass surgery. After losing weight, she went to get her excess skin removed and her original tattoo was a casualty of the surgery. She has since gotten another tattoo to replace the one she lost.

“People always ask me if I think I’ll wish I never got these when I’m in my 70s,” she says. “I’m not worried about that though. All my tattoos have a special meaning to me, and they will mean just as much to me later.”
Regardless of tattoo regret, there must be something in the ink. Many of Tallahassee’s tattooed who jokingly call themselves addicted, are running to the local shops to go under the needle again and again.

“I wouldn’t call it an addiction,” Meshell says. “I think there is just so much fear before someone gets their first tattoo, then they realize it’s not so bad so they keep doing it.”

Micah Vandegrift was named “Mr. Tattoo Tallahassee” last year. To gain that title, he beat out competitors varying from a few who only had one or two tats to some that were “tattooed from their necks to their ankles.”
Vandegrift has been inked many times and says he doubts he will ever go under the laser to get any of his work removed.

“I’m a little past the point of regretting anything,” he laughed. “I’d have to laser my whole body.”
Vandegrift’s interest in tattoos was sparked at a young age. He got his first tattoo at 15, a symbol meaning brotherly love that he and his two brothers share.

“Most of my friends were older and into the rock scene so they were all already getting tattoos,” he said. “Somehow my brothers and I managed to talk my parents into letting us get them too.”

Vandegrift, who moved back to Tallahassee in April and now works with FSU’s library system, says his tattoos have never gotten in the way of his professional life and he has no worries about the future.

“I really want people to hire me based on my qualifications, not how I look,” he says.

Inspired by his love of renaissance art and culture, many of Vandegrift’s tattoos have heavy artistic and historical influences, and he has no intention to stop tattooing any time soon. 

“Most of the major extremities of my body have some kind of tattoo,” he says. “I think I look better with tattoos. They are like jewelry to me.

“I’ll probably continue to get tattoos until I run out of space.”

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